Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Death is Sloooooooowwwww in Coming for the Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop
Death Comes for the Archbishop
Willa Cather

I keep seeing Willa Cather mentioned as one of those female authors that you "should" read. I've never read anything by her before, so I thought I'd giver her a try.

Death Comes for the Archbishop
 is the story of two French Catholic missionaries, Bishop Latour and Vicar Valliant, who come to America's western frontier to minister to the population. Set in the mid to late 1800s, the book describes, in episodic format, an isolated landscape in which these two men must carve out an existence.

The men deal with uncooperative fellow clergymen, the traditional beliefs of the Native American tribes, harsh elements, and criminal activity. Cather's characters take everything in stride. In that way, they seemed a bit unrealistic. It's like she describes their personalities and backstories and makes them very different from one another, but at the same time they are both simply do-gooder missionaries who never get ruffled because God blesses their pursuits. Both men worry about how to spread their faith while no insulting the Native American people, but at the same time they dismissively call their trusty guide "boy," even though he's a grown man with a family.

That said, there are some really gorgeous passages.
She advanced in a whirlwind of gleaming wings, and Tranquiliano dropped his spade and stood watching her. At one moment the whole flock of doves caught the light in such a way that they all became invisible at once, dissolved in light and disappeared as salt dissolves in water.
Minor spoilers ahead: 
Another thing that bothered me about the book was the "death comes for the archbishop" part. I mean, he's not even an archbishop until way towards the end of the book. You keep wondering when death is coming, but it is a long way off. The bulk of the book takes place over a fair number of years, where the men are settling into their new territory. Then suddenly, in the last part, we jump forward like 40 years, Latour is an archbishop, and now, okay, he can die (according to out title). But he STILL manages to hang on for what seems like an endless amount of time.
/End of spoilers.

Cather certainly has a way with words, but I can't say I'll be reading more of them anytime soon. There are just too many other authors to try out first.


Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

Reminds me of Praying Mantis by Andre Brink, not the spoiler part but the proselytising in the wasteland part.

MJ said...

@Nana: It's potentially an interesting topic, but I think it has to be handled carefully.